• Tommies of Note

    tommies-of-note
    Photos by Thomas Whisenand

    The grand piano looks out of place in Loras Hall 203A, a century-old dorm room converted into an office. A hissing radiator growls and releases bursts of heat into the room on a crisp December day, while a student accompanist takes a seat at the piano bench, opens his music and strikes the keys. Junior Tommy Glass moves to the center of the room and listens to the piano’s first few notes. Quickly, he finds his pitch, then opens his mouth and fills the room with a deep baritone voice. All eyes in the room quickly turn to him.

    His singing is melodious and booming, and his body language is expressive, almost like he is on stage, were it not for the radiator, fluorescent light and walls of music books crowding the office. He drowns out the old building’s noises, and finally the piano seems to have meaning.

    Glass has arrived for his voice lesson fresh off the Ordway Musical Theater stage, where he finished his second performance in the Minnesota Opera’s production of “Silent Night,” in which he played a named role as a French soldier.

    With encouragement from his voice teacher, music professor Alan Bryan, Glass auditioned for the opera last May. He was cast in three productions for the season but due to scheduling conflicts with his St. Thomas choir commitments, he only could perform in two: September’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” and December’s “Silent Night.”

    “I was the youngest one in both productions,” he said. “There are people who have master’s degrees working toward doctorate degrees, and I haven’t finished my undergraduate (degree), but I’m here.”

    Glass found himself working beside well-known performers, which made singing onstage “nerve wracking” but also gratifying and fun. “It was an incredible experience to be in a professional setting where this is (my) job,” he said. “I’m getting paid to be inrehearsal.”

    December 2011 graduate Mark Thomas also was contracted for three operas and agrees with Glass that the experience was an exciting opportunity.

    “It’s hard to call it work,” he said.

    Thomas, a liturgical music major from Texarkana, Texas, performed in “Silent Night” with Glass, had a small named role in January’s “Werther” and will perform in “Madame Butterfly” in April.

    “The first couple of rehearsals, I was in heaven,” Thomas said. “You all sing with your full voice because that’s the sound that they’re going for. It’s just a loud chorus of male voices and gorgeous music, so it’s amazing.”

    Auditioning for the Minnesota Opera According to Bryan, the Minnesota Opera is a well-respected musical organization, and a few St. Thomas undergraduate students have participated previously. However, he said he cannot remember anyone as young as Glass being cast in a named role.

    Glass and Thomas were among 88 people cast from the 178 people who auditioned, said Floyd Anderson, Minnesota Opera artistic relations and planning director. What he looks for at auditions varies from season to season. “I am mostly looking for vibrant solo singers,” he said. Glass and Thomas fit that profile.

    Undergraduate students are cast every season, Anderson said, but the Minnesota Opera has not had too many St. Thomas students in the past. Glass and Thomas came “highly recommended,” he said. “It was a pleasure to work with them.”

    Music Department Chair Matthew George said, “For our undergraduates to be involved in a professional production is a great thing for them [because] we’re trying to prepare students to become professionals.”

    Thomas participated in Liturgical Choir and Chamber Singers while at St. Thomas, but he said performing on the Ordway stage is a different sort of experience. “The performance is more alive because you get reactions and realize that what you’re doing is affecting people for whatever end – if they’re laughing or getting caught up in the story,” he said.

    “It’s fun to get caught up in what you’re doing. Even though there’s an audience, it doesn’t change how you’re going to act or how you’re going to sing,” he added. “You are trying to sing in your purest form.”

    “Silent Night” was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera and was based on the true story of World War I soldiers from France, Germany and Scotland who called a truce on Christmas Eve 1914. The men came out of the trenches in France to celebrate together and developed friendships with their supposed enemies.

    Glass said “Silent Night” rehearsals were more exacting than those for “Cosi Fan Tutte” because the world premiere opera’s librettist, composer, director and conductor were at every rehearsal. “Rehearsals got pretty intense,” he said. “It was war. We were running around shooting each other [on stage].”

    Glass and Thomas felt an emotional connection to their roles.

    “It’s amazing that people our age went off to fight some king’s war,” Thomas said. Thomas was a Scottish solider in the chorus and thought he could understand the reality of the situation.

    “It wasn’t difficult at all to really catch yourself in this situation and think, ‘Wow, that is what I would be thinking (in that situation),’ and then transfer it vocally,” he said.

    Thomas learned some of this technique from Bryan, his voice teacher since fall 2007.

    Learning From an Opera Expert Bryan could be considered an opera expert, because he has sung more than 50 lead roles professionally. He has been challenged to exude many different emotions while singing.

    “It’s a privilege to explore the human spirit in yourself in this totally safe environment called the stage,” Bryan said. “You can pull out all the stops and really explore grief or really explore anger or passion.”

    He said opera, like ballet, requires a lot of “training, technique and technical ability.” One might start at a young age, but it takes serious practice, dedication and maturation.

    For almost 30 years, Bryan has taught vocal lessons to St. Thomas students such as Glass and Thomas. He passes on his knowledge and draws from his experiences when teaching. St. Thomas no longer has a musical theater or opera program, so for students to acquire a contract with the Minnesota Opera is similar to an internship. Thomas and Glass are gaining performance experience in a professional setting while still in school,Bryan said.

    Back in Loras Hall, Bryan’s opera experience is evident. While Glass sings the aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from “Die Zauberflöte,” the “Magic Flute” opera, Bryan sits with his hand close to his mouth, singing silently. He listens intently and seems to have a performance of his own while sitting at his desk.

    “I really love coming to work every day,” he said. “It’s (because of) the wonderful young people I get to meet with one-on-one and get to know well and kind of live with them for four years.”

    Abruptly, he stops Glass, who smiles and listens to constructive criticism. The two work on vocal and facial adjustments before continuing.

    “Singing is like the Goldilocks story. It can be too hot or too cold,” Bryan says with a laugh. “We want it just right.”

    He shows Glass how opening his mouth a certain way can affect the sound. Bryan then asks Glass to translate the German piece. Bryan said most opera singers need to be proficient in at least three languages, usually German, French and Italian.

    Glass, a German minor, studiously tries to decipher the foreign text. Together the professor and student sift through the pronunciation, meaning and emotions for the song. Bryan becomes a director as he starts blocking the scene, telling Glass where tostand, how to hold his hands and cock his head. Glass absorbs the comments gracefully and enthusiastically returns to singing with Bryan standing nearby. Glass applies the minor adjustments to his technique and resonates an even purer sound.

    The teacher and student continue to work on this process, which seems more like an opera rehearsal than a vocal lesson.

    Mark Thomas

    Backstage at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts, Mark Thomas ’11 prepares for his role in the opera, “Werther.”

     

    Practice, Practice, Practice While Glass and Thomas have only one lesson a week, they practice several hours each week.

    Glass said during a normal rehearsal week, he could put in 20 hours of singing: 12 hours of rehearsal, four and a half hours of choir rehearsal and his own three and a half hours of practice. With opera performances added, that’s 30 to 35 hours of singing.

    “Singers are like sprinters,” Bryan said. Training prepares them to sing for short, intense periods of time, but it can be strenuous, even damaging, without proper training or care.

    Thomas said he had three performances in December followed by rehearsals on Sunday and Monday for his senior recital.

    “[I] was quite worried that my voice would not be at full strength in time for Tuesday’s recital due to so much rigorous singing and a very difficult recital,” he said.

    Glass had a similar weekend in November with three opera performances and a dress rehearsal with the Chamber Singers where he performed two arias. “After [it] was done, my voice was exhausted,” he said. “I took vocal rest, no serious singing, for about a week and a half after that, and only started singing again because we hadthe St. Thomas Christmas concert.”

    But Glass thinks all the hard work is worth it. He said music always has been a part of his life. His father, Tom ’84, is the director of planned giving at St. Thomas, and his mother attended St. Catherine University. Both were in Liturgical Choir, and Glasssaid he cannot remember a time when they did not share music at home.

    Glass, from Edina, Minn., came to St. Thomas interested in the music business program or journalism. “I talked to some people in the Music Department, and I was sold,” he said. “I wasn’t really thinking of [majoring in] music anywhere.” But after taking amusic theory class, Glass said he knew music was what he wanted to do.

    A vocal music education and music performance double major, Glass had hoped to go into teaching after graduation, but his time with the opera has made him think about new possibilities. He is looking at graduate programs and wants to continue performing.

    Thomas said he started to get serious about music when his voice cracked. It wasn’t until he started auditioning for colleges while in high school that he started to consider studying music.

    He had a connection to St. Thomas through St. Kate’s “Music Ministry Alive” summer program, which he participated in for three summers. At the camp he met Rob Strusinski, the former St. Thomas Liturgical Choir director who retired in 2010.

    “He gave me a tour of the campus after my final there, and I had to choose between a very Catholic-oriented music school and a more performance-oriented school,” Thomas said. St. Thomas offered more spirituality and theological education, which he felt was important.

    “You can get music training anywhere, but I wanted to get something more,” he said. “I wanted to continue my faith life, so a Catholic college is where that happened for me easily.”

    Thomas has applied to four graduate schools, two in performance and two for sacred music. Before that, he will have performed in two additional Minnesota Opera productions and appeared as Frederick in the St. Kate’s spring production, “Pirates of Penzance.”

    Music Faculty Are the Key Glass and Thomas are only two distinguished majors of a music program that continues to grow.

    Department Chair George said, “A lot of students play professionally in various venues and may not be as high profile as the Minnesota Opera.” The department has seen “fairly consistent” enrollment numbers and “steady growth” in the past few years. About 120 minors and majors are enrolled, and a combined total of about 400 students participate in the various ensembles. Between 280 and 300 of those students are non-majors, George estimated.

    He attributes the growth to “very active recruitment, improved quality of the programs that we offer, and mostly … the dedication and excellence of our staff.”

    George said he is proud of his music students’ accomplishments. Thomas and Glass are also proud of their accomplishments and those of their fellow music students, despite the challenges posed by limited practice spaces.

    Glass calls the Music Department a “hidden gem,” and noted that students keep enrolling in the program. “People are drawn to excellence,” George said.

    George and Bryan said students mostly are attracted by the professors and quality of the liberal arts education that other music performance programs may not offer.

    “I think when students come to visit, they have to meet faculty and staff here who give the impression to students that this is a very favorable place to come to,” George said. “It’s one thing to have that impression, but it’s another thing to be able to sustain that. We’re able to do both.”

    Bryan said, “I think we have strong, ambitious people on the faculty, and they just don’t settle for mediocrity or being set back by limited facilities.”

    Thomas and Glass agree that professors make the program stand out. Both said they have developed close relationships with their professors and consider this a high point of their experience with the Music Department. The professors “all genuinely care about you as a person, as a musician, as an individual, about your growing,” Glass added. “You’re not a number here.”

    Bryan said he is able to develop a close relationship with his students because he works with some students for their whole undergraduate career.

    “It’s an interesting journey,” he said. “That’s just part of being a young person and developing. You see their ups and downs.”

    Back in Loras Hall, Bryan starts the lesson by asking Glass how he’s doing and what’s new in his life. After a short discussion, Bryan asks Glass, “What can I help you with?” Glass says he would like some feedback on pieces he is preparing for an audition.

    The student helps drive the lesson. Glass announces the name of each piece before starting and nods to his accompanist when he’s ready to start. Bryan’s full attention remains on Glass throughout the lesson. After the final aria is sung, amended with Bryan’s suggestions, Glass receives warm applause from his teacher.

    Glass said if he knew where he would be today when he was a freshman, he would have been “very surprised.” In the past six months, he said his experiences have totally changed his outlook. He wants to continue performing and learn more about the history of music and musicology.

    Reflecting, Glass said, “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the operas without the incredible support I received from my professors. I am forever grateful to them for allowing me to step up to the big leagues for a little bit.”

    Click here to listen to Mark Thomas sing “Ach so fromm” from the opera “Martha,” accompanied by Kevin Seal.

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